Our Winchester Top 5
Once home to King Alfred, Winchester offers an irresistible mix of food, festivals and feelgood factor – The Sunday Times
When the Sunday Times announced that Winchester is the best place to live in the UK, we were among those who went “social media wild” with excitement. Yes, our beloved Venta Belgarum was named the UK’s top location for myriad reasons (e.g. low crime and great schools) and many of which evidently related to alcohol. In fact, our own little project, Winchester Cocktail Week, was cited as one of the best things about the city. High praise indeed!
If you’re a subscriber to The Times, you can read the full article here.
It’s fair to say that the city has its challenges though, particularly in relation to affordable housing. This isn’t a fairytale city after all; even if some parts have an air of Diagon Alley about them.
Now that the excitement around the article has settled a little, we thought we’d reflect on why we think Winchester’s such a great place to be. We moved here from Southampton back in 2012 and while it was only our intention to stay for a year; four years down the line, we simply can’t tear ourselves away.
Here are our top 5 reasons for loving Winchester.
By far the greatest thing to impress us when we moved to the city was its wealth of history. Hardly surprising, I suppose, when you consider that the city was once England’s capital but what this means for us is that the history you find here has incredible ties with stories of power and influence, monarchy and the Church. As mild Game of Thrones obsessives, you can see why we might feel a sense of awe around this place. The Great Hall, which is the last remaining building of the former Winchester Castle destroyed in the Civil War, houses King Arthur’s Round Table. We’d like to think this is proof that King Arthur existed and Winchester is in fact Camelot but it’s more probable that Henry VIII had an antique table painted as a bit of party piece. The streets are full of quaint corners, ‘Ye Olde’ buildings and plaques announcing great links to the past. I love the fact that we get to walk past the site of William the Conqueror’s chapel to buy our bread in the morning.
By far the biggest attraction here in Winchester is its Cathedral, which boasts an incredible fifteen centuries of history, blowing the minds of the crowds of tourists filtering down its medieval nave (the longest in Europe, don’t you know!) during the summer. Bloody Mary was married here, Richard the Lionheart crowned here and Jane Austen, the county’s greatest literary champion, laid to rest here. We like to wander through the Cathedral enjoying the peace and quiet, and its grounds are perfect for a picnic in the summer.
In the winter, the Cathedral comes into its own. Obviously, a hugely important time in their calendar, Christmas brings with it the annual Market in the Cathedral’s Inner Close. It’s a massive draw for tourists and locals alike and at times simply heaving. However, when you catch it at the right time, it’s a sheer delight to wander round with a mulled wine and the best cheese toastie you’ve ever tasted, eyeing up beautiful glass baubles and the religious icons being sold by Ukrainian nuns. What better way to get into the spirit of Christmas?
Winchester has a really rich annual festival programme. The year starts with Winchester Cocktail Week, which we organise in February to brighten up those long, winter nights post-Christmas. Bars, cafes and restaurants across the city join forces to bring amazing cocktails and masterclasses to the people of Winchester over the course of one otherwise dark week. Over 2,000 signature drinks were served in the festival’s inaugural year; proving that Wintonians know how to have a good time!
They’re an erudite bunch too, with a superb array of cultural events taking place over the course of the summer. From the hugely popular and well-established Hat Fair in July to the city’s first ever Jazz Festival coming in September 2016, there are plenty of opportunities to expand one’s mind and nourish the inner writer/poet/speaker/cinematographer/florist/stonemason in all of us!
One of the highlights of Winchester’s festival programme is the Wine Festival, which sprang into action in 2014. It’s a great way to expand your knowledge and get down to some seriously fun wine tasting!
Hampshire, of course, boasts an impressive number of vineyards; many of which are at the forefront of the ever-growing English sparkling wine movement. We feel really lucky to be surrounded by such a lively industry at what seems to be such an exciting time for them. The vineyards aren’t all open to the public on a daily basis but many do hold special events. There are even opportunities to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in at harvest time, as we did at Danebury Vineyard just outside Stockbridge. We’re converts to English sparkling wine and would urge you to seek out your local vineyard and give them a try.
4. The Food Scene
We have an absolutely fantastic food and drink scene in Hampshire fuelled by real people (yes, many of them real life farmers!) producing real food and drink. As well as wine, there’s charcuterie, gin, sausages, trout, watercress, bread, cheese…even Hampshire-grown wasabi. So when they’re reading posts by London bloggers getting high on Tunworth cheese in the Big Smoke, Wintonians take pride in knowing they have great produce right on their doorstep; even if it does mean getting up at the crack of dawn on a rainy Sunday morning so as not to miss out on Hoxton Bakehouse‘s freshly baked cinnamon buns.
We’re less than an hour from the capital by train but it does seem to take a little longer for the latest food trends to make their way here. I can’t tell you how long I had to wait for burrata to emerge. But there is always hope; I actually saw sriracha on a menu somewhere the other day! We’re blessed with a fantastic independent cafe and restaurant scene run by passionate business owners and we do all we can to support them – much to the detriment of our wallets and waistlines…
5. The People
We knew Winchester had a reputation for being incredibly posh and ‘just so’ before we arrived but it quickly became apparent that this really is a unique place to live. In the early days, some of our neighbours thought this was our holiday home because they only really saw us around at weekends…until we explained to them that we actually had full-time jobs. I think the city must over-index on retired army majors, bishops and judges and their charming widows. This all adds to an air of grace and fortune that hangs in the streets like the scent of honeysuckle in the summer.
Ok, so you may still encounter the odd red-trousered gentleman, with an equally red face, fuming in your local pub over its lack of Barolo which certainly doesn’t help the Wintonian stereotype but, on the whole, people don’t take themselves too seriously and are just old-fashioned pleasant. They say ‘hello’ to you in the street. And people like to chit-chat too. Yesterday, I had a conversation with a lady about ewe’s milk cheese before we both went on our merry, separate ways.
Thanks to Winchester Cocktail Week and our Ginchester events, we’ve met some great folk from many walks of life. This is a city where opposites seem to be able to co-exist quite nicely, thank you very much. Unsurprisingly, there’s a strong sense of tradition and, dare we say, a resistance to change in some quarters, however this is balanced by a strong creative scene and bohemian undercurrent in the city. There are real characters here, all adding to the incredibly interesting and spangly social fabric of this quaint city.
What do you love most about Winchester? Let us know in the comments below.
Winchester Cocktail Week is a week-long celebration of mixed drinks. Buy a wristband and get access to £4 cocktails, masterclasses, workshops and special events.
Buy your tickets online or at the Winchester Tourist Information Centre.go back